Marilyn Monroe died 50 years ago but as time goes by she seems to be more remembered, not less. This year’s Cannes film festival uses a picture of her as the official poster. As more of her life is revealed, piece by piece, the more intriguing she becomes.
When Marilyn Monroe was nine her mother was diagnosed as bipolar and schizophrenic, then confined to a mental asylum. Marilyn never knew her father and until she was sixteen she was in care.
From those bleak beginnings came a Hollywood star with rare insights and talents. Of course her looks and charisma first got her noticed. They played a major part in her climb to international fame. But there was a lot more to Marilyn and one of the many tragedies of her life was the way her raw sex appeal hid almost everything else. Being continually cast as the dizzy blonde didn’t help either.
Underneath the glamour there was a shrewd film professional who never stopped reading, learning and enquiring. Her mother became ill but before her problems took over she worked as an assistant film editor in Hollywood. Marilyn inherited her talent and as time went by she was able to analyse the structure of her films with a trained eye. She could spot where they might be improved and suggest solutions. This star knew more than her critics – and crucially – a lot more than anyone ever gave her credit for.
Part of her early reading was a biography of the New York journalist and radical thinker, Lincoln Steffens.
Steffens travelled widely and was a critic of US capitalism. Writing in the 1930s he was already alert to the way democracy was threatened by the power of money to buy election results. So what was a young Hollywood starlet doing reading dangerous stuff like that? She wanted to know for herself and wasn’t prepared to believe what so many men told her.
That kind of attitude helps to explain her marriage to Arthur Miller, often portrayed as a dangerous left winger. So much so that when he was called up in front of Senator McCarthy’s notorious enquiries into anyone suspected of communist sympathies, Marilyn was told that if he didn’t name names – her career would be over. He didn’t – and it wasn’t.
Another example of Marilyn’s attitudes was her support of jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald. Like many other African Americans she had trouble getting bookings in big clubs. When her agent tried to book her into a top Hollywood club the management didn’t like the idea. Marilyn told them that if they booked her she would take a table by the stage every night. They did and she was there. The house was packed all week and Ella Fitzgerald never again had trouble getting bookings at exclusive clubs. She thanked Marilyn who had taken a risk with her career - because she believed in civil rights.
Marilyn Monroe was a highly intelligent woman – with attitude. Wow. How dangerous is that!